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History of Barbie

Priya Johnson
Though most of us have played with Barbie dolls, very few of us are aware of the history of Barbie dolls and how they came into existence. It all conceptualized in the mind of a visionary named Ruth Handler, who believed a teenage fashion doll would be a hit among children.
First introduced in 1959, Barbie dolls have been entertaining kids for over 50 years. Over 1 billion Barbie dolls have been sold, since it was first launched and have undergone various transformations ever since. The idea of a teenage fashion doll originated in the mind of a great visionary, Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel Toys. Let's have a look at the history of Barbie dolls to understand Barbie's odyssey, since the mid 20th century.


Ruth Handler, the wife of Elliot; co-founder of Mattel toy company often observed her little girl playing with two dimensional paper dolls. Something that caught her attention was that her daughter often gave her dolls adult roles to play. Till the 1950s, dolls available in the stores were replicas of babies. Ruth's daughter's interest in adult figurines spearheaded a spark in Ruth's mind. She expressed her idea of toys with adult bodies to her husband.

The Making of Barbie

Ruth thought of coming up with a three dimensional adult bodied doll, that her daughter and friends could play with. When Ruth went up to her husband and other directors of Mattel, she did not receive the acclamation she expected.
They felt manufacturing the doll would prove quite expensive, with little long-term appeal. However, Ruth did not allow them to pour water over her idea!

The next spark that triggered the Barbie flame was in the mid 1950s, when Ruth happened to be visiting Switzerland.
There she came across a German doll, Lilli, who was a shapely, pretty doll made from hard plastic with lovely shoes and earrings molded onto her and her hair tied into a ponytail. Lilli was designed after a famous German cartoon character, Bild and was available in 11 ½" or 7" in heights.
As soon as Ruth set her eyes upon Lilli, she knew what she was looking for! Ruth could now envision her three dimensional adult doll. She returned to the States and continued to coax and convince her husband and Mattel directors to develop her idea.
Finally, after a lot of perseverance on Ruth's part, Barbie was finally designed by the technicians and engineers at Mattel.
Barbie was a beautiful, shapely, long limbed, 11 ½ inches tall, endearing doll. Ruth hired a fashion designer, Charlotte Johnson to create Barbie's wardrobe. In 1958, the patent for Barbie was obtained and teenage fashion doll that was to mesmerize children for decades was born!

Barbie's Red Carpet Entry

Barbie was named after Ruth Handler's daughter, Barbara and was launched in the toy market on March 9, 1959 at the American Toy Fair in New York City. Barbie wore a zebra striped swimsuit costume for her launch, that was hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers.
At the toy fair, Barbie faced skepticism from toy makers, as never before had people seen any doll so small and different from other dolls prevalent in the toy market then. They posed the question, 'Would anyone buy this new doll?'

Ruth Handler had come a long way to give up. The intelligent woman knew what she needed to do next.
She needed to introduce Barbie to the children and that's exactly what she did. She went ahead and launched an innovative television ad campaign, to advertise Barbie to every child in the country. Her marketing strategy was spot on and soon Barbie began climbing the popularity chart ladder, at an overwhelming rate.
Several parents expressed their unhappiness over the doll's chest, which featured distinctive breasts. However, Ruth believed she wanted the doll to have an adult appearance.
The first Barbie doll cost $3 and during the first year after the launch, 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold. In 1964, Mattel acquired the rights to Lilli doll and the production of Lilli dolls stopped.

Barbie History Timeline

Barbie has faced various role transformations after its first launch. Though the first Barbie was designed to be a fashion model, Barbie had over 80 other careers since then, right from doctor to astronaut, firefighter, etc. Let's have a look at the transformation Barbie underwent over the years.
Year - 1959
Barbie - Ponytail Barbie

Year - 1960
Barbie - Bubblecut Barbie

Year - 1963
Barbie - College Graduate Barbie

Year - 1966
Barbie - Bendable leg Barbie

Year - 1967
Barbie - Turning and twisting Barbie
Year - 1973
Barbie - Surgeon Barbie

Year - 1976
Barbie - Olympic and Ballerina Barbie

 - 1980
Barbie - Golden Dreams Barbie
Year - 2000
Barbie - Dolls of the world and celebration Barbie

 - 2005
Barbie - Harley Davidson Barbie

Year - Present
Barbie - Platinum, Gold, Silver, Pink Label Barbie

Some of famous ones also include Drag Queen Barbie, Ella, the first “Chemo Barbie”, Fashionistas Barbie and more.
In 1961, Barbie was joined by her boyfriend Ken, who was named after Ruth and Elliot's son. Moreover, in the years to follow several other dolls joined Barbie such as:

1963 - Midge
1964 - 65 - Allan, Ken's friend
1965 - Skipper and Christie
1968 - African-American dolls ethnic friends
1995 - Baby sister Kelly
1997 - Share a Smile Becky, a disabled friend in a wheelchair.
Barbie, the first fashion doll today, has family and friends of her own and her odyssey from 1959 till today, is a reflection of history of fashion trends. Today, a Barbie doll's role goes far beyond that of a doll or accessories.
The Barbie line doles out a large platter of exciting licensed products for little girls, like apparel, books, home electronics and furnishings. Barbie doll's role is further expanding and continuing to inspire the dreams of little girls with the array of careers she ventures into.